With the help of a computer, the Rev. A. Q. Morton, a Scot, has calculated that of the thirteen New Testament epistles generally ascribed to Paul, only five—Romans, Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, and Philemon—were written by him. Under the title, “A Computer Challenges the Church,” in the London Observer (November 3, 1963), he claims he has proved this in a scientific, unimpeachable manner.
Morton presents his results with the challenge: “Theologians all over the Christian world have now to face the implications of this discovery. They must change their view of the life of Paul, they must revise the history of the early Church and they must jettison doctrines that have now been shown to be without foundation.” He asserts that religion is confronted by natural science in a way “every bit as far-reaching in its effects as the clash between T. H. Huxley and the bishops in the nineteenth century. Once again authority is called upon to yield to the advance of knowledge.” Morton claims that New Testament scholars have lacked the instrumentation to determine questions of authenticity and pseudepigraphy. “The technical resources available to New Testament scholars were quite inadequate to enable them to determine the authorship of an Epistle.” But Morton broke through the impasse, he says, and “set out to discover some scientific techniques that would furnish conclusive answers to such questions.” The theologians originally did not have much confidence in such techniques, Morton says; “the most respectable” of them “are used to treating evidence in a most unscientific way.” He concludes his article with the statement, “They are not searching for the truth but only for illustrations of what they already accept to be true.”
A week later, the November 10 Observer gave the reactions of “five leading churchmen and Bible scholars” to Mr. Morton’s claims—namely, John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich (Honest to God); Leslie Weatherhead; Professor Christopher Evans; Thomas Corbishley, S. J.; and Charles Raven.
Evans begins by stating the problem: “It is a little difficult to see what is biting Mr. Morton so hard.” Robinson declares that Morton is embittered against theologians. “If he had spent more time supplying figures and less on odium anti-theologicum, one would have more confidence in his judgment.” So sharp a judgment is justified, perhaps even more than Robinson could have known when he wrote. Morton complains that the theologians abuse his work. The editors of the English theological review Expository Times allegedly had rejected his article with the following note: “Dear Mr. Morton, I do not understand this but I am quite sure that if I did understand it, it would be of no value.” A week later Morton had to make an apology. He had been unfair to the editors of the Expository Times, “whose rejection of my article was in courteous traditional terms and I must apologize for a lapse of memory.”
It appears that he has a poor memory at other points. He says that he was allowed to present his case at an international conference at Oxford but that three Scottish professors have had it in for him. Mentioning them by name (W. Barclay, A. M. Hunter, and J. S. Stewart), he suggests that they could not use the results of his investigation because their own published works about Paul would then be worthless. Yet, according to the Observer (November 10), Professor Evans had invited Morton to come to the University of London and explain his theory. Moreover, Barclay reveals in the British Weekly (November 14) that he had allowed Morton to present his case to his students and had hoped that the theologian-mathematician would come to Glasgow again.
What is biting Mr. Morton so hard? It very likely is more than a problem of personal relations. Apparently it stems from the argument that if it could be proved that Paul did not write one or another of the epistles attributed to him by the Bible, the trustworthiness and the authority of the Bible would fall. Now that the non-Pauline authorship of eight epistles ascribed to the Apostle has allegedly been proved, the Bible—and the teaching of the Church which rests on it—has lost its authority.
To non-Christians this argument is very convincing. It is also convincing to some Christians, though not to others. It is generally recognized that apostolic origin had much to do with the acceptance of the canonical books. Nevertheless, Luther asserted, “A writing that does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even if it were from Peter or Paul. On the contrary, a writing in which Christ is preached is apostolic, even if it were written by Judas, Annas, Pilate, or Herod.” Meanwhile it is clear that for Calvin the relation between authorship and canonicity is closer than for Luther. Calvin said, for example, in commenting on Second Peter: “I find it more probable that this epistle was written by someone else in the spirit of Peter than that it was written by Peter himself” (although this is not derived from Second Peter 1:1 and 18). Professor Evans’s remark about Morton’s conclusion with respect to the Epistle to the Ephesians, concerning whose destination Beza had already had questions, may also be considered here: “Ephesians deserves to be considered in its own right, and even if not Pauline is more important than Philemon, which is. The doctrine of Christ’s lordship over the universe remains to be expounded as part of the Church’s developing faith even if Colossians is shown to be non-Pauline, and what Paul sparked off in disciples or later admirers may, in its own place, be as significant as what Paul wrote himself.”
The critics of the Observer (November 10) also reproach Morton for his boasts against the Bible and the Church. Leslie Weatherhead remarks: “I was delighted with Mr. Morton’s article,” but adds quickly—more or less in the spirit of Luther—“All that matters is not authorship but truth and relevance.”
And so it may safely be said of Morton’s calculations and conclusions that, theologically speaking, there is much less at stake than he claims.
Was The Computer Necessary?
In the meantime there remains of course, the much more difficult question: What must be thought of Morton’s high regard for his statistical method of drawing watertight conclusions about the authorship of the Pauline epistles? That Morton overestimates the matter is obvious. We certainly do not need the computer to make it clear that the man who wrote Galatians is not the same one who wrote Hebrews. Every Bible reader can see this. In Galatians one of the main theses of the author is that he received his Gospel, not at second hand through the intermediary of men, but directly from the Lord. Hebrews 2:3 indicates that writer and readers had received the message of salvation “at second hand”; it had been attested to them by those who had heard the preaching of the Lord. Many New Testament scholars would have more appreciation for a balanced argument that weighs all the pros and cons, as does that of Henry Chadwick of Christ College in Oxford, about the authorship of Ephesians (cf. Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, 1962, pp. 980 ff.). They would prefer a statement like that of F. F. Bruce, who in the same commentary says that if Ephesians is not from Paul the man who wrote it was the greatest Paulinist of all time (p. 934), to Morton’s assertion that “the Industrial Revolution has arrived at the New Testament” and that “it is now as crippling to be innumerate as it has been to be illiterate.”
The reader who has a great confidence in statistics may feel at ease. Morton is not the first to use statistics in approaching questions of authorship. In 1959 the Roman Catholic scholar De Solages published a study about the possible literary sources of the first three Gospels. Statistics, mathematics, and charts were all used. The result was not surprising to most of his colleagues: it confirmed the so-called two-sources hypothesis (that Matthew and Luke used Mark, but with complete independence of each other; that both also used another source, which was the same for both, but here too worked independently). The humorous thing is that this result hardly agrees with a statement of the papal Bible commission of 1911 about the origin of Matthew. Nevertheless, Cardinal Tisserant wrote an introductory note for De Solages’s book in which he says that the author’s conclusions are “extremely probable, if not certain.”
I call this humorous in connection with Morton’s remark about Christian theologians: “They are not searching for the truth but only for illustrations of what they already accept to be true.” Robinson calls this “a mere insult.” That is exactly what it is. It is difficult to say to what degree it stems from Morton’s ignorance. Morton does not appear to know everything about the history of research. He writes, for instance, “No scholar had ever challenged the view that Paul wrote Galatians, for this Epistle is his indignant reply to the charge that he lacked authority.” However, the Galatian authorship was vigorously challenged by Bruno Bauer, and for several decades this opinion of Bauer was taught in the public universities of Holland by such men of the so-called Dutch school as Allard Pierson, Naber, A. D. Loman, and Van Manen. And these men were scholars.
But to return to statistics, we are indebted to the Swiss scholar Robert Morgenthaler for a Statistik des neutestamentlichen Wortschatzes, which appeared in 1958. There are plenty of statistics in this book: an endless number of tables, many calculations of probabilities, and a long section of graphs. Morgenthaler does not mention using a computer; he succeeded, I think, by merely counting. And he also investigated data that Morton looked at.
Morton’s work is based on the principle that every writer has his own peculiarities of style that are deeply rooted and always recognizable. These peculiarities no more change in the course of a lifetime than does a man’s fingerprint. Among these unchangeable characteristics Morton reckons the number of words that make up a complete sentence. He chiefly counts such phenomena as the repetition of the word “and” and the space between uses of the word; the use of “it” to begin a sentence; the use of the words “but” and “in,” of the verb “to be,” of the definite article, and of the Greek equivalent of “he,” “she,” and “it.”
Morton investigated the regularity with which these appeared in seven Greek authors. Of these he names Isocrates and Aristotle, and with them his theory holds true. Classical scholars have noted that this can be expected because an orator like Isocrates carefully molded his language. For the rest, scholars would still have to see the figures to be convinced.
Some Relevant Questions?
Several important questions rise about the application of this method to the thirteen biblical epistles ascribed to Paul. The first is whether sufficient account has been taken of the fact that Paul was trilingual. This plurality of languages surely influenced Paul’s style. In a statistical approach to style, the question must be raised whether the style of a trilingual writer under all conditions and during an entire career would remain exactly the same.
Another question: Did Paul dictate all his epistles, or only some? Whether one dictates or writes affects one’s style.
Furthermore, the epistles of Paul are not word-by-word from his own hand. The Apostle repeatedly quotes the Old Testament, and not always in equal amounts. In Romans there are fifty-one quotations from the Old Testament, in the rest of his epistles forty-three. The quotations in Romans comprise 704 words; the whole epistle has 7,105! Many scholars recognize that Paul sometimes quotes a passage known to his readers from, for example, their church hymns, such as the hymn about Christ in Philippians 2:6–11. Sometimes Paul explicitly says that he is handing down a “tradition” (1 Cor. 11:23–25; 15:3–7). It is demonstrable that he then falls into another style and uses a vocabulary other than his own.
How important the use of sources is for style can be demonstrated in Acts. “And” is obviously less frequently used in the second part of this book than in the first. In the second part the author had fewer sources or none at all; if he had sources, they were different from those of the first part. The opinion is rather frequently offered that Romans 16, or at least a great part of it, was originally written to the Ephesians and later attached to the Epistle to the Romans. Does this make a difference in Morton’s figures or not? There are all kinds of theories about the later combination of several small epistles and notes of Paul into one longer epistle (particularly with regard to Second Corinthians). Proponents of such theories presuppose that there have also been non-Pauline pieces inserted; a famous example is Second Corinthians 6:14–7:1.
Has Morton taken all this into account? If so, how? If a short epistle like that of Philemon is serviceable in statistical calculations, then the inclusion or exclusion of Romans 16 would make a considerable difference. This chapter has 435 words, while Philemon has 335. But who decides whether such given and debated sections are to be included or not? The computer does not make such decisions; it only answers the questions put to it.
From further publications of Morton it will have to be seen whether he has considered all the relevant questions and whether he has formulated them properly. (A book by Morton and James McLeman, Christianity in the Computer Age, will soon be published by Harper & Row. This may throw additional light on the matter.) To work honestly with a computer requires that all possibilities and all hypotheses that may be considered reasonable at the present state of research are taken into account. This means, however, a refinement in research that could not have been accomplished by one man in a couple of years. Whether such a micro-syntactical investigation will be fruitful cannot be told in advance. We shall have to wait.
Morton himself would have done far better had he waited to announce his judgments about Pauline authorship until he had stronger evidence on which to base them.
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